House Speaker Greg Hughes stripped Rep. Norm Thurston of a committee leadership post last week after Thurston made what was deemed an inappropriate comment to a woman working at the Capitol.
House leaders had previously admonished the Provo Republican for his behavior toward women and did so again in a closed-door meeting, during which Hughes removed Thurston as vice chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, two Capitol sources say.
The move marks the first known instance in recent years where a Utah legislator has been reprimanded for inappropriate behavior. It comes amid a nationwide debate and heightened awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, particularly in Hollywood and political circles.
Given all of that publicity, it’s almost incomprehensible that the message isn’t sinking in for some men — including Thurston.
Hughes would not explain his decision, but confirmed he made it.
“I have made changes to assignments when I have felt that the adjustments strengthen the respective committees and the process. This was one of those occasions,” Hughes said. “The buck stops with me [on] decisions like that.”
A notice for a Government Operations meeting posted last Tuesday listed Thurston as the vice chairman. A similar notice published Thursday showed House leaders had replaced him with Rep. Justin Fawson, R-Ogden.
Thurston did not address the comment in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune Monday evening.
“Assignments are at the discretion of the speaker,” he wrote. “I support him in his decisions. I have some very heavy and significant bills this session that will require my full attention.”
Fawson said he had “not a clue” why Thurston lost the assignment. Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden, the chairman of the Government Operations Committee, said he had asked Thurston about the change and neither Thurston nor House leaders would discuss it.
Sources with knowledge of the House leadership’s action say a woman working at the Capitol took offense at something Thurston said. It is not clear what that was or whether the woman was a legislative staffer or an intern.
But it was the last straw for House leaders, who had previously warned Thurston about his behavior. Thurston is widely known for posting “selfies” with young female staffers and interns on his social media accounts and had been put on notice to be more sensitive in his interactions.
Hughes’ swift action in response to the latest complaint is encouraging, a signal that lawmakers will be held accountable for their conduct and allegations will not be swept under the rug.
Twice since 2016, the Legislature has investigated and ordered remedial action as a result of sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers, according to documents provided to The Tribune last month under an open records request.
In the first instance, from October 2016, a staffer said a lawmaker called her “honey” and “sweetie,” commented that it “was nice to have an attractive woman in the front office,” and once kissed her hand after he thought she had injured it. When she complained about the comments and the kiss, she said he told her, “I will remember that at your evaluation.”
In the other case, from February 2017, a lawmaker demanded a female staffer tie his tie for him. She refused. Then, he directed her to fix his collar. When she did, he told her “Good girl.”
Both lawmakers were counseled by the Legislature’s workplace anti-discrimination coordinator about the sexual harassment policy and asked to retake a harassment training course. In both cases, the identities of the accused and the accusers were redacted from the documents.
Maybe that practice needs to end, as well, so future lawmakers will know that voters, and not just House leaders, can hold them accountable for their actions.